It's surprising to hear Legs McNeil's voice when you get him on the phone. This is the man who was covering New York's punk scene in the '70s as writer and co-founder of Punk Magazine, a job that involved hanging at CBGB with Blondie, Iggy Pop and The Ramones. Later, he would revisit every good, bad and ugly moment for the 1996 book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, which he wrote with Gillian McCain.
You expect him to sound raspy, groggy and Nick Nolte-ish. Instead, his voice is chipper, upbeat, healthy. These days, McNeil, who will turn 57 the day after he comes to Raleigh this Saturday, says his life in a small town outside of Philadelphia is a pleasant one punctuated by trips to the gym. (The gym?!) After the last decade or so he's lived through, McNeil needed some peace and serenity in his life.
"About 12 years ago, I met a girl on a book tour and I fell madly in love with her, and we were gonna get married and all that stuff," says McNeil, calling from his home in Schwenksville, Pa. "But what I didn't know was that she was still using heroin."
Black tar heroin, to be exact, infected with a flesh-eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis. It spread to her leg, which had to be amputated. She didn't survive the operation.
Of course, the tragedy hit McNeil hard. "For the last 10 years, I've been on pills," he says. "I had really bad anxiety. I really didn't deal with it too well."
In November 2011, McNeil went into a trauma program at the Sierra Tucson Treatment Center in Arizona, where his therapist gave him advice that he needed to hear. "What my therapist said is, 'Therapy is basically putting your life into some sort of narrative. And you write, so why don't you sit down and write it.' So I did, and that's the new book."
The new book is Live Through This, a memoir that chronicles his tragic relationship with his former love and its harrowing aftermath. McNeil hasn't quite finished it, so it won't be available on bookshelves or tablets anytime soon. However, he is currently reading selections at events around the country, as well as reading from Please Kill Me with co-author Gillian McCain.
He appreciates the reaction he's been getting from audiences about the new material. "I was really shocked when I went out to the Midwest and did readings out there last fall, and people really seemed to like it and were excited by it," he says. "So, that was a big boost, you know."
Writing a memoir was certainly a change of pace from the oral histories he usually does. (Along with Please Kill Me, he also co-wrote the adult-movie chronicle The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry in 2005.) McNeil has had other oral-history ideas, like doing a book on the crisis that took place in Little Rock when nine African-American students enrolled in a racially segregated high school in 1957. Unfortunately, publishers weren't feeling it.
Nevertheless, McNeil pushes on amid the tragedy and rejection he's been through, continuing his mission of telling good stories. "I've done a lot more than punk," he says. "I've covered two wars and I was senior editor of Spin.
"So, yeah, I'm associated with punk, because when they say, 'Oh, let's get someone to interview. Let's call this guy.' And they always call me... But I have a lot more interests than just punk, you know."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Write through this."